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read piano sheet music

The greatest gift a piano student can receive is the gift of independence. The ability to choose a song and learn it on your own opens possibilities for a lifetime of enjoyment at the piano. Learning to read piano sheet music is an important part of developing this freedom. 

Reading music is one of the most satisfying experiences. The ability to read musical notes from a page and transform it into an expressive, moving piece of music is nothing short of magical. Fortunately, this skill is not difficult to learn. Anyone can learn to read music, if they spend a proper amount of time working on it.

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What is sheet music?

Sheet music is perhaps the most important invention in the history of music. It allows us to communicate with each other anywhere in the world, and it allows us to listen to the music of those who have come before us. By learning to read sheet music we can transport ourselves into any historical period, and also ensure that the music we write stands the test of time. 

The greatest gift a piano student can receive is the gift of independence. The ability to choose a song and learn it on your own opens possibilities for a lifetime of enjoyment at the piano. Learning to read piano sheet music is an important part of developing this freedom. Reading music is one of the most satisfying experiences you can have as a musician!

The ability to read sheet music from a page and transform it into an expressive, moving piece of music is nothing short of magical. Fortunately, this skill is not difficult to learn. Anyone can learn to read music, if they spend a proper amount of time working on it. The first step in reading sheet music is to learn the keys on the piano keyboard. 

Why should you learn to read music?

Learning how to read piano sheet music is actually much quicker and simpler to do than it seems. Learning to read is just a matter of continuing to do it every day. We take for granted how easy things are to learn when we do them every day – but every new skill is simple when you remind yourself. Also when you do learn how to read sheet music for piano we remove all doubt we have about what we are playing. The answers become simple and laid out in front of us, allowing for more expression and experience, instead of being confused by what to play.  Learning to read is very simple, as long as you stick with it. 

Learning how to read music is a necessary skill if you want to engage with any sort of music theory work. If you don’t understand the notes on the staff, then you will not be able to work with scales, chords, or rhythms in musical notation. Of course, you can work with all these concepts outside of written music. But, learning how to read and write will only help to deepen your knowledge and understanding of music theory.

List of basic musical symbols to know

The basics of reading music notes are really quite simple. Traditionally, music is notated on a series of five horizontal lines and four spaces. We call this collection of lines and spaces the staff.

The position of notes on the staff indicates their relative pitches. Notes that are higher up on the staff sound higher than notes that are lower down on the staff. As you learn to read, you can almost think of it like an XY graph, where the X axis is time moving horizontally to the right (we read music from left to right) and the Y axis is pitch moving up and down vertically.

We use a few different tools to orient ourselves on the staff. If we didn’t use these tools, the staff would essentially be useless. We would have no reference for which pitch corresponds to which line or space. These tools are like musical compasses and maps, they show us our reference position and which directions to go.

Understanding the G clef

The G Clef is also referred to as the treble clef. It is a representation of the piano keyboard. The ledger lines and spaces help us learn how to read the note names. It looks like this:

The G clef

The treble clef tells us where the note G is on the staff. It shows where all the musical notes sit. We then find those notes on our piano keys. This is the beginning of learning how to read piano sheet music. 

By starting on the second line up from the bottom (we always count the lines and spaces from the bottom up), and looping up and around and then down again to form a sort of cross on the second line, we know that this note will be G. For this reason, treble clef is also known as G clef. It tells us the G will be on the second line of the staff.

Here we can see the note G sitting on one of the ledger lines. We can also see there are no sharps or flats on our treble clef. Our clef also shows us how to read key signatures, and where to play notes. There are five lines and four spaces. This means we would be playing the C Major Scale, which is also called our White Key Major Scales.  

From here, we can use our knowledge of the musical alphabet to figure out the rest symbols. Each line or space will represent one move up or down in the musical alphabet. So, if we move up from G on the second line to the note on the second space, we will find A. If we move up from A to the third line, we will find B. 

If we move up from B, we will find C on the third space. If we move up from C, we will find D on the fourth line. If we move up from D, we will find E on the fourth space. And finally, if we move up from E, we will find F on the fifth and top line.

We can add additional lines above the staff to access more notes. We call these lines ledger lines, but we will not dive into that right now.

Lines of the G clef

When learning the notes on the staff, we commonly divide study into two parts: the notes on the lines and the notes on the spaces. Here you can see all the notes on the lines of treble clef:

the lines of treble clef

It is common to remember these letters using the mnemonic device, “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”, which is easy to remember because of course, good boys deserve fudge.

Spaces of the G clef

And here you can see all the notes on the spaces:

Spaces of the G clef

It is common to use mnemonic devices to remember the lines and spaces of treble clef. Probably the most common mnemonic for the lines is Every Good Boy Does Fine, but you are welcome to make up your own if you desire. The most common mnemonic for the spaces is FACE, simply because the notes on the spaces of treble clef naturally spell the word FACE.

Now let’s practice using the mnemonic devices to read notes. Here is your first example:

First, determine whether this note is on a space or a line. It is on a line. Now, use the mnemonic device to count up from the bottom. Every, Good, Boy, B, the note on the third line of treble clef is B. The more you practice this, the easier it will become. Eventually, you will not need to think about it, just like you do not need to think about what words these are. You just simply know them by looking at them.

Try another example:


Is this not on a line or space? It is on a space. Now, use FACE to count up. F – A – C – E, E, the note on the fourth space of the treble clef is E. Wonderful work!

Understanding the F clef

The bass clef or F Clef is called so because it shows us where the note F is. It begins on the fourth line of the staff, loops up and around, and is complete with two dots on either side of the fourth line. All this decoration around the fourth line lets us know that this line is F, specifically the F below middle C.


We can use the same strategies we used to learn the rest of the notes in bass clef. The most common mnemonic we use is probably Good Boys Do Fine Always, but again feel free to make up your own if it helps you to remember more efficiently. The most common mnemonic for the spaces of bass clef is probably All Cows Eat Grass. When looking at piano sheet music beginners will need to memorize these note names. 

Lines and spaces of the F clef

Check out the lines of bass clef here:
the lines of bass clef hereCheck out the spaces of bass clef here:

Now let’s use this new knowledge to practice the bass clef notes. Check out this example first:


Is this note on a space or line? This note is on a line. So let’s count from the bottom up, Good Boys Do Fine, F, the note on the fourth line of bass clef is F.

Try another example:

Is this note on a line or space? This note is on a space. Count up from the bottom All Cows, C, the note on the second space of bass clef is C. Excellent work!

If this is seeming a little complicated or confusing, a good thing to do is to look for online piano lessons, or use the free trial of the Skoove Piano Teaching App! 

Combining both clefs

When we combine these two clefs together, we call this combination of musical symbols the grand staff. The grand staff looks like this:

The grand staff is most commonly used to notate piano sheet music. This way, both the left and right hands are easily viewed. The grand staff covers a wide range of pitches, from the C two octaves below middle C (even lower with ledger lines) to the C two octaves above middle C (and higher if you want to go there). 

The middle of the piano

The middle of the piano is called middle C. It is also called so because it lies in the middle of the Grand Staff. It is one line below the treble clef and one line above the top line of the bass clef. We often think of Middle C as being the white key between the left hand and the right hand. It is below all the treble clef notes, and above the bar lines of the bass clef notes, sitting on a ledger line. 

Reading notes is simple! Here it is shown on the grand staff. These are also the notes of the C Major Scale. This will be very important for reading easy piano sheet music. A great place to find piano sheet music for beginners is the Skoove App. 

How to read sheet music

At the start of learning to read sheet music, it is useful to learn a few ‘landmark’ music notes. This means that you can see a note and recognize it instantly in any context. The first landmark note you should start with is middle C.  

Try to play middle C from the Skoove sight-reading course to learn your first landmark note. Listen carefully while you play to gain extra benefit from the Skoove app. As well as helping you to learn your first landmark note, the backing track supports the development of your ear and sense of pulse as you listen to the chord changes and rhythm. Of course, you should practice writing all these notes that you learn with some blank piano sheet music.

  • Reading music by intervals

Knowing your way around the piano without having to constantly look down is a valuable skill to develop. You can support this skill by learning to read piano intervals. An interval is the distance between any two notes. Recognizing intervals is a quick and practical way to learn how to read sheet music because your fingers respond to the shape of the music. By recognizing common shapes and patterns, you will not have to think as much, and will therefore speed up your processing time, making you a faster reader.

  • Use stepwise motion

First you will learn to play in stepwise motion, from one key to the next. From your ‘landmark’ middle C you will move up a step, repeat or move down a step. At this stage it is not necessary to know the names of the notes you are playing. You have the skills to work it out from your ‘landmark’ note. 

Try it out on Musical Steps. The Skoove app will wait for you to play the right note, so you won’t need to look down. This means you are starting to develop your keyboard geography and ear for sheet music.

  • Jump to thirds

Once you can recognise basic intervals and feel comfortable moving by step, you can progress to reading skips. The Skoove app will help you place your hand in the correct position. After that, maintain focus on the score as you learn to read sheet music for piano and play by skips. In this exercise you will learn what it feels like to play the interval of a 3rd. 3rds are the primary building block for piano chords as well. 

  • Learning hacks

Reading piano sheet music for beginners will become easier if you can memorize the piano alphabet both forwards and backwards. Learning music notes backwards helps you identify notes which are lower than your landmark note. C, B, A, G, F, E, D.

General skills which support reading piano sheet music

There are 3 other important skills which impact your speed and success when you learn to read piano music note names. They are rhythm, reading ahead, and playing in different positions on the keyboard. The pianist who recognises rhythm easily has more time to focus on notes and expression. 

Reading ahead in music requires you to read the upcoming notes while still playing the current ones. It is common when reading text but takes a bit more practice and awareness when you learn to read piano music. Nevertheless, it is a great and powerful tool to help you read music and memorize the piano keys.

Playing in different positions ensures your fingers don’t link a particular music note to a specific finger. Most of the work so far has been in C position. Why not play Morning Awakening for a totally different hand position or try these finger positions exercises.

Why is reading music important?

Learning how to read music is a necessary skill if you want to engage with any sort of music theory work. If you don’t understand the notes on the staff, then you will not be able to work with scales, chords, or rhythms in musical notation. Of course, you can work with all these concepts outside of written music. But, learning how to read and write will only help to deepen your knowledge and understanding of music theory.

Top tip

If you find yourself habitually looking at the keyboard image, try covering it to ensure you are training yourself to learn to read piano music.All of these methods combine to help you learn to read efficiently in a short amount of time. For best results use them all and never underestimate the value of several short daily practice sessions.

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Author of this blog post:

 

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
1 month free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!